Josei – Drama, gender bender, historical, romance, war
25 Volumes (ongoing) of 40 Volumes (ongoing)
Japan, 1860s. As certain domains push against the shogun and clamor for a rebellion, a group known as the Mibu-Roshi fight on behalf of the shogunate. A new member joins this group in admiration, but the captains all seem to be goofs, leches, and drunks! But one leader is about to discover a big secret: the promising new recruit is actually a girl!
First, an aside:
VIZ Media has been releasing Kaze Hikaru at an astonishing slow pace of one volume a year. That means that at this pace, it will be the year 2031, and that is just to catch up with the current Japanese volume. That means babies born now will be almost eligible to drive. And based upon Japanese Amazon reviews, Kaze Hikaru doesn’t seem to be any hurry to wrap up. (The release in Japan isn’t much faster, as Kaze Hikaru is only pushing out about two volumes a year in Japan.) The manga could easily reach 50 volumes. So those newborn babies will probably have graduated from college at this rate. While this slow release schedule makes it easy to catch up, it is incredibly frustrating for fans, and plus it makes it easy for Kaze Hikaru to fall through the cracks. In 2031, I’ll be *coughcough* years old. That’s waaaaaay too long to wait for a series I started ten(!) years ago. This isn’t a shounen series where three, four volumes are being pushed out each year.
So really, Kaze Hikaru is starting out in a major hole. The slowness of the volumes is partly VIZ Media’s fault and partly the fault of the manga itself. Frustratingly slow. Sure, about three years have gone by in the series. But the war that is on the horizon hasn’t even officially started yet!
Okay, you get the point.
When I first was introduced to Kaze Hikaru, it was called “the shoujo Rurouni Kenshin“. Well, first, now it’s categorized as josei since it left Betsucomi. Second, it’s not anything like Rurouni Kenshin. Just because they take place around the same time period doesn’t make them similar. One deals with the actual war, the other deals with some memories of the war 10 years later.
Most importantly, Rurouni Kenshin talked about the revolution but Kaze Hikaru lives it. In Rurouni Kenshin, all you really need to know is that Kenshin’s side won but a lot of people aren’t happy with the new government, and he can’t blame them. Kaze Hikaru is even more Japanese-centered, and it’s a historical first and foremost. I have started this series at least four times:
Time #1: “I don’t understand what the heck is going on! Who is this person again? What is happening now? I give up.”
Time #2: “Okay, I bought some more volumes… Nope, still lost.”
Time #3: “Hey, I know who this is! I know this event!” … Wait, how long ago was the last volume? The series is going slow down anyway. Why should I read this?
Time #4: “I’m going to finish it… This time for sure.”
(Although there might have been a #5 that was a repeat of #2.)
Seriously, Pixar’s Dory has a better memory than me when it came to this series.
So what changed between Time #2 and Time #3? Did the events of Kaze Hikaru finally sink in?
Nah, it was the game Hakuoki. Despite its supernatural elements, Hakuoki covers many of the real-life events of the Bakumatsu period. In addition, it also helps bring some of these characters to life. It’s not that Watanabe doesn’t do a good job of characterizing the Shinsengumi; it’s the fact there is a large amount of people introduced, and they tend to have similar features. The author decided to go with a realistic look, so nobody has crazy hair or unique wardrobe choices.
I don’t know about you, but Japan was mentioned three times in all of my school history books: “Japan allied with Germany and Italy. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The U.S. bombed Japan.” I wouldn’t blame all you Brits and Canadians and everyone else around the world for not knowing much about Robert E. Lee and being completely lost if you were to read a story about a girl who sneakily joins his army.
But that’s exactly what happens in Kaze Hikaru, and Hakuoki provides a general overview of the time period and the history of the Shinsengumi. (Plus the game also has an encyclopedia to help you out.) There are also other Shinsengumi-inspired stories like Peacemaker Kurogane, but that series for instance is still ongoing, and the target audience is male. Obviously, Hakuoki and Kaze Hikaru have some significant differences (and historical inaccuracies), but it’s enough to give followers a point of reference. Saito is adorkable in both Kaze Hikaru and Hakuoki, Okita is the #1 Kondo fanboy, Harada is a flirt, etc. But Hakuoki‘s Harada definitely wouldn’t flirt with a guy while Hakuoki‘s Okita definitely isn’t a Hijikata fan. Playing (or watching the anime adaptation of) Hakuoki may “spoil” (as much as history can be spoiled) some events like the Ikedaya incident or Harada sharing his scar, but I found it so much easier to follow along with Kaze Hikaru after playing Hakuoki. (If you’re curious, the story of Hakuoki starts around Kaze Hikaru Volume 6; events before that are covered in the as-yet-untranslated game Reimeiroku and also in Season 3 of the anime.) However, I was also much younger the first time around, and I was collecting the volumes irregularly. The issues are less likely to arise for older readers and/or those who are marathoning the series. Again, though, at one volume a year, I hope you have a good memory…
If you have played the game, Kaze Hikaru hasn’t even reached the point where the Guardians of the Imperial Tomb (or however it will be translated) has been formed. Again, slooooow.
Wow, this much and I haven’t really discussed the story.
In short, a girl named Sei disguises herself as a boy named Seizaburo and joins the Mibu-Ro, which would later known as the Shinsengumi. The members are not all formal samurai like most Japanese troops, but they believe in the shogunate system. (The shogun was the de facto ruler of Japan, as he controlled the military.) Sei’s identity ends up being discovered by one of the head assistants, a man named Okita. Okita has his reservations, but he eventually agrees to let her stay in the group and not expose her identity. Sei then wishes to always fight by Okita’s side as certain regions rebel against the shogun.
While Watanabe admits she never thought she would write a period piece, she takes great pains to make Kaze Hikaru as historically accurate as possible. (Well, minus the whole “girl-dresses-as-a-boy-and-joins-the-group” thing.) She even researches and explains how Sei deals with her monthly
hell visitor. The author even covers the differences between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto as well as popular misconceptions and her own errors. There’s little doubt Kaze Hikaru is a labor of love. Of course, there are some liberties taken. Part of this is to make the story easier on modern readers, but it’s also because of the lack of solid information. Heck, even the proper way to write the men’s names are debated.
Even for those non-history buffs out there, Kaze Hikaru is a fascinating read. This time period is often referred to as the twilight of the samurai, before guns became the weapon of choice. Complaints about the influx of foreigners into Japan and the government’s response led to civil unrest, a situation that has many parallels to today. While the Shinsengumi are fan-favorites in pop culture, both the shogunate and the troop itself certainly did some horrid acts. Kaze Hikaru, like in many other depictions of the Shinsengumi, has the characters accepting their deeds. They may not have been in the right, but that doesn’t mean the other side was just either. Kaze Hikaru is about a series of real-life events, and hindsight is 20/20.
The manga covers both the major events of the Bakumatsu period and the more everyday life of the Shinsengumi. For every raid is a long period of leader Kondo and trusted assistant (and mastermind) Hijikata discussing the future, visits to the red-light district, etc. As I kind of alluded to earlier, it almost feels like Kaze Hikaru is taking place in real-time, where you don’t know when the next major incident is going to happen. And so the men are left being men. These down-times between battles can sometimes wear on readers. This is especially true when you don’t get a lot of romantic fluff as a reward. Despite the focus on Sei and Okita, chapters will showcase many of the prominent figures of the Shinsengumi, so a lot of the politics and internal struggles of the group will be explained. Again, some of these flashbacks are interesting, but if you want to read about the actual Boshin War, please take a raincheck.
Despite the OT rating, the manga isn’t overly violent or sexual even when it switched magazines. Obviously, people will be killed, but you won’t see horror shots of piles of dead corpses. Plenty of time is spent in the red-light district, and “go sleep with someone” is actual medical advice. Many have a interest — some joking, some serious — in Sei’s boy form, and male-male relationships are shown. All of this is to be fairly expected from a period piece, but the pages aren’t filled with blood and boobs.
Of course, Kaze Hikaru is historical fiction and not a historical work. Going back to my Hakuoki comparison, many players wish Chizuru was skilled with a katana. Well, Sei certainly has the talent for swordsmanship, but I was still surprised at how much she managed to get away with. While Sei is an actual Shinsengumi member (unlike Chizuru), her outbursts of anger do lead to some dangerous situations and almost insubordination. I think some of Chizuru’s restraint would have served Sei well. She also is often torn between wanting to be by Okita’s side as a fellow warrior and as a woman. Although Okita knows Sei’s identity from the start, he is willfully ignorant involving matters of the heart. Okita is a bit of a goofball with a profound love for all things sweet and related to Kondo. Another captain, Saito, is given a lot of attention thanks to his crush on “Seizaburo”, and most of the other major Shinsengumi members appear regularly.
As I mentioned earlier, Kaze Hikaru is drawn in a more realistic style. Well, more accurately, it’s more like old-fashioned shoujo done in a modern style. Does that make any sense? The faces are rounded, noses are prominent, etc. While this is good from an historical accuracy perspective, it’s less reader-friendly, particularly for casual readers. It’s not like there’s a lot of variety in fashion or hairstyles. Even major characters like Kondo and Yamanami are really only separated by their bangs. The atmosphere of 1860s Japan comes alive with beautiful shots of temples and towns, and the designs of the characters are consistent from the beginning volumes to the current ones. Comedy shots are included, but they are mostly limited to angry faces or bashful expressions. The cuter scenes really start appearing late in the story, when the romance (kinda sorta) makes progress. It’s really needed as the actual story starts slowing down. All in all, the art is solid, but the similar designs may be a hurdle early on.
Japanese name order is used. So it’s “Tominaga Sei” and not “Sei Tominaga”. The adaptation does not denote long volumes, so it’s “Soji” and not “Souji” or “Sōji”. Honorifics are kept, including uncommon ones like “-uji”. Starting in Volume 14, “sensei” is presented as a separate word. So it goes from “Okita-sensei” (or Okita-Sensei, you can’t tell due to the all-caps font) to “Okita sensei”. The other honorifics (“Kamiya-san”) stay with a dash. “Sensei” is often included in VIZ Media works, even those that don’t use honorifics, and they all tend to use the no-dash version of sensei. It still looks odd here when “Kamiya-san” is used. “Okita sensei” just makes it seem like that “sensei” is floating in midair: “Hey, Kamiya-san, Okita sensei.” Other ways of addressing individuals like “ani-ue” and “oku-sama” are also kept.
The main translator changes late in the series (Volume 22), and the editor changes a couple of times. A glossary is included in each volume, but they are tend to be the same ones for long periods of time. Trust me, by the fifth volume, no one cares that “Yubo” is a nickname. The good news is that the second translator seems to include a better variety of terms in the notes.
Instead, I wish more of the footnotes and previous untranslated words were included. Terms like “shudo” are important, but was it ever explained? I don’t know; I don’t remember. So while a lot of words do have a footnote, just as many do not in that same volume. I guess you are expected to either remember from a previous volume or to use context clues. I can understand not including every term once again in the notes, but these should have been updated every few volumes. In short, if you don’t think you can handle terms like “Sonno-joi” and “bakufu” in normal conversations, you are going to hate the adaptation. But these are used on Wikipedia and other sites, so… you can’t be too upset I guess?
If you are familiar with Hakuoki, Aksys translated or included alternate Japanese readings for almost all of these terms, but you may have picked up on them from listening to the game. So while they always used “the shogun” or “the shogunate”, it’s “bakufu” here; “roshi” instead of “ronin”, “bushi” instead of “samurai”, etc.
In short, if you think I use too many Japanese terms, you’re probably going to struggle or outright hate Kaze Hikaru.
- Do you want to learn more about the Shinsengumi, a group you may have heard of before?
- Do you mind waiting for years to finish the story?
- Do you like gender benders and slow romances?
- Do you mind a lot of Japanese terms?
- Do you prefer more realistic art?
If you answered yes to all these questions, Kaze Hikaru is for you. For everyone else, it’s good, but you pretty much have to commit yourself to the series for the long, long haul. Quite frankly, despite how solid the story is, I don’t think it’s a good ROI (return-on-investment) for most individuals.